West Asheville. Hank Williams, Jr., David Allen Coe and Waylon Jennings.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Watt Espy's Autographs

Watt Espy loved autograph collecting, a hobby he had for perhaps three decades.  Here's a small book he took to an Alabama Bankers Association conference when he was sixteen years old.  His father, Major W. Espy, Sr., was president of the ABA at that time.  

What's funny is that he actually got his dad's signature!

If you don't recognize the top autograph, click here.  When Uncle Watty later ran for Alabama State Senate, he was far to the right of the future governor, George C. Wallace.  Wonder what influence "Bull" had on Watty?  Makes me also wonder about my grandfather's views.
 Now take a look at a couple of letters Watt wrote asking for autographs.  Watt ended up getting hundreds of autographs this way.  What made his letters effective?

Keep in mind Watt Espy was born in 1933.

Why so effective?

1.  He used official letterhead, the kind that stands a better chance of grabbing the attention of a busy person.  Of course, the fact he was "on the clock" might tell you how slow business was or just how crafty Watt was in using "work time" for other pleasures! 

2.  His letter was well-written, yet to the point.  Anyone who ever got one of his letters very quickly understood that he had a gift.  Whether corresponding with the "death penalty world" or jotting down observations in a journal or writing a letter to the editor, Watt wrote with a noticeable style and substance.  And when it was called for, such as with these letters, he carefully followed proper rules and etiquette:  correct indentation, appropriate format, proper greeting, etc..  At least on the Espy side, there really isn't anyone who comes close to what Watt produced in his writings.  My late Aunt Marilyn had a bit of this ability, but my dad had little.  Of course, for my generation - the e-mail, Tweeting and texting one - writing, the old-fashioned way, well, is just old-fashioned.  But I can send you one hell of an e-mail!

3.  He made it easy for the recipient to fulfill his request - in a way, psychologically shifting some burden onto them.  In some cases, he provided a simple card that they could sign and mail back.  In others, he provided the necessary stamps to facilitate the exchange.  I'm sure whoever got his letter knew he sincerely meant business.  How could you turn him down?!?!?

One other thing that's fascinating about Watt's autograph collecting is that he had a precise, systematic approach in keeping track of it all.  Much like with his death penalty research, Watt kept a ledger detailing every autograph request letter he had mailed.  He meticulously charted, using categories and columns, the names and addresses for each person - for example, Hollywood stars - he mailed a letter, the date the letter was mailed and the status of the response.  He obviously also made copies of the letters.  In a few situations, if he had not gotten a response, and it was a person whose signature he was just dying to get, he remained persistent.  They would likely get a second letter.  This "second attempt" was also carefully recorded, and surely he scored this way from time-to-time. 


From CycleBack:
M. Watt Espy Jr. Along with being an advanced autograph collector, the Alabaman Espy was an internationally renown scholar. He was widely regarded as the world's foremost historian on the death penalty in the United States. This makes a personalization to Espy particularly interesting. Primarily though the mail, Espy collected autographs in many areas including sports, politics, movies and television, artists and scientists.

From Net54Baseball:
Watt Espy and Roy Pitts, both of Alabama, had the hobby of collecting autographs through the mail in the 1940s-80s. They obtained autographs in all areas, from sports to entertainment to politcs to science. They wrote to people ranging from Mickey Mantle and JFK to the Idaho Secretary of State. Originally, Espy wrote asking for autographed photos. However, his autograph collection grew so physically large that he wrote a second time to many of the people asking that they autograph an index card, so he could remove the photos from his house. Pitts, who just recently died, collected through the mail over 250,000 autographs. Realize that this was mostly before the autographs had financial value.

What happened to Uncle Watty's extensive autograph collection?
He sold some in the mid-'70s for $2900 plus some house alarms, which he started selling door-to-door.  Some of his autographs ended up on online trading sites like History For Sale.  When I contacted the folks at HFS, they shared that one autograph has been part of their inventory since 1987. Another bundle of autographs - a big portion - is believed to have been burned in an accidental fire many years ago.  Finally, a small number of autographed pictures ended up in the UAlbany Espy archives.

Lastly, for a touch of irony, check out this interesting remark made by a death penalty scholar and expert:
"Those other folks should have asked Watt for his autograph,
in my opinion."    - Jim Acker
School of Criminal Justice
University at Albany


Larry Smith said...

I never saw Watty's collections except his gospel singing tapes on his wall shelves. He would ask his live-in fellow to bring out the several cards from a rear room of his home that I wanted to copy from his lynching collections. I did not know of his autograph collection. Watty continues to be an interesting man.

Beverly Espy Dayries said...

I do wish someone could recall that Watty had collected autographs of many politicians back when he was a boy. I know you said that your Uncle Jim did not recall a train car or at least some huge piece of transportation that was parked behind Uncle Major's home to house Watty's autograph collection. I can't believe I dreamed it up.

Anonymous said...

WOW! What great information, and so well presented. I just spent an hour going thought it. Thank you!! Mike Radelet (Dec, 2012)